The NBA Board of Governors tweaked the rule book last week in order to, among other things, “help eliminate the gap between the [traveling] rule as written and how it has been applied in NBA games,” according to a summary distributed by the league. The tweak defines the concept of the gather, which is a basketball term that refers to a player picking up their dribble or taking control of the ball from a pass or loose ball, usually while on the move. While this point of emphasis might wind up being useful, it still fails to address a particularly annoying way that the traveling rule is routinely exploited and misapplied.
Let’s think about this. If you were constructing the sport of basketball from scratch and were determined to keep dribbling—which you’d do, because dribbling is cool—you’d need a rule that outlawed running around with the ball while not dribbling, because running around with the ball safely tucked away would always be strategically preferable to bouncing it off the floor. But you’d also need that rule to account for momentum, because basketball would break down pretty quickly if players were required to come to an immediate stop in order to pick up their dribble while sprinting.
So you’d have a traveling violation, to prevent ball-handlers from becoming running backs, and you’d cook into your traveling violation some leeway for players dribbling while running. You’d give them, say, two steps to gather the ball before they’d need to either pass or shoot. This way, De’Aaron Fox could still knife into the paint and glide in for a layup, or dish a slick no-look dime to a cutter, while operating at full speed.
What you would not do, because it makes no intuitive sense, is grant a player who is dribbling while stationary two free steps in whatever direction they please, as part of the normal and not at all complex act of, you know, no longer dribbling. Those two steps for a player on the move are an acknowledgement that forward momentum is important to the basic flow of the sport, not some general, all-purpose allotment. A player who was bent over at the waist, dribbling the air out of the ball, not moving more than a couple inches in any direction and certainly not generating any momentum, would not be able to suddenly kill their dribble and take two steps backward without triggering a traveling violation. The reason for this is very intuitive and straightforward: while dribbling is not required of a player who is standing still, it is the only permissible way of moving from one spot to another while possessing the ball. That’s perhaps the fundamental rule of basketball, and a player who takes two full steps out of a basically stationary position without dribbling the basketball has violated the spirit of that rule in a way that a player who needs two steps to gather the ball while running has not.
This is what’s irritating about the NBA’s new emphasis on its traveling rule. It clarifies what constitutes a gather, and how the gather is incorporated into a traveling call, but does not seem to distinguish between a legitimate gathering scenario (Fox cradling the ball while exploding through the lane at a jillion miles an hour) and a blatant exploitation of the ambiguity of the written rule (pretty much James Harden’s entire three-point repertoire).
It seems like this clarification wants to eliminate the ugliness of a player using two steps to gather the ball and then getting away with another two steps, post-gather. The most egregious example of this came from—you guessed it—James Harden, who took roughly 19 steps on an absurd and immediately viral “step-back” shot last December. But the clarification still seems to permit sudden perpendicular gather steps, having absolutely nothing to do with momentum. Harden’s step-back repertoire is built on exploiting that opening—the letter of the rule technically grants him a couple steps during his gather, and he uses that latitude to turn the act of picking up the ball to shoot into a darting backwards move the direction of which is in no way caused by momentum. On the one hand, it’s clever, and its terrifying reliability as a scoring move is breathtaking. On the other hand, it’s the first step—the first 19 steps, in fact—toward ANARCHY.
NBA rules persistently lose connection from the natural basketball circumstances that make them necessary. The charge, for example, is now almost exclusively deployed as a measure of whether a defensive player is quick enough to draw one, and almost never as a measure of whether an offensive player has committed one. When Harden spends all summer practicing some new tap dancing routine along the arc, meticulously committing the steps to muscle memory, he’s ensuring that the move gets the most advantage out of the empty space of a clumsily written rule. Over time, the referees are persuaded that the effort to adhere to the letter of the rule supersedes whether the move in any way naturally follows the spirit of the rule. Also, over time, referees behave like home plate umpires who reward crafty pitchers by expanding the corners of the strike zone. That’s how you wind up with an entire offensive system—and a damn near unstoppable one, at that—built around a player using an increasing number of gather steps to move perpendicular to, or even opposite, his forward momentum.
Because I am an obnoxious curmudgeon, I would like to see the NBA specify that gather steps are reserved for momentum scenarios. Doing so would almost certainly come with a range of unintended and unanticipated complications and consequences, but since a great many of those would involve James Harden and Chris Paul melting into bubbling puddles of liquified angst, that’s a future I’m willing to face. This would be the NBA reaffirming that the rationale behind a traveling call in the first place is to prevent a ball-handler from moving from point A to point B without an active dribble, in order to gain an offensive advantage. Ambiguity in the current rule is being exploited in ways that violate its spirit, and closing exploitable loopholes is just a natural part of having and upholding a system of rules. And what is basketball, I ask you, but a system of rules?
Read the rule book’s new language below. Meanwhile, I will climb back into my crypt.